Poor rail service threatens U.S. economy, shippers tell federal regulators

By Bill Stephens for trains.com

At second day of hearings, BNSF and UP say they are working to hire conductors and improve service

Utilities are worried that the slowdown in coal deliveries could threaten U.S. electricity supply and destabilize the power grid.

Chemical producers say erratic rail service has forced them to curtail production of essentials like chlorine used to treat public drinking water systems and the plastics used in medical products.

And one of the nation’s largest retailers of diesel fuel, renewable diesel, ethanol, and diesel exhaust fluid says Union Pacific’s plan to cut its shipments by 50% will create fuel shortages, bring trucking to a halt, and raise prices at the pump.

Those were among the shipper concerns raised on Wednesday during a second day of hearings on railroad service problems that have been created by a shortage of train crews.

“The nation’s supply chains are in a dire situation today because of this. And it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. And the longer it goes on, the worse it’s going to get,” Ross Corthell, chair of the National Industrial Transportation League’s rail committee, told the Surface Transportation Board.

He adds: “I don’t want to be doomsday, but it’s critical to our national security at some point in time. We have to be able to move commodities. And it’s becoming more and more challenging every day.”

Surface Transportation Board logo

Shippers complained about how lengthy delays, erratic service, and missed switches forced them to curtail or halt production or shift some shipments to more expensive trucks. Some products, such as chlorine and coal, have no alternative to rail. “We need to move coal and right now it’s just not happening,” says Katie Mills, a lawyer for the National Mining Association.

Shameek Konar, CEO of Pilot Travel Centers, says UP’s plan to restrict traffic as a way to ease congestion will squeeze already tight supplies of diesel fuel nationwide, and particularly of renewable diesel fuel required in California.

UP initially asked Pilot to curtail its shipments by 26%, but subsequently said it would have to reduce its carloads by 50% or face railroad-imposed embargoes, Konar says. Unlike some shippers, who ordered extra cars as cycle times increased on UP, Pilot’s car fleet has held steady since January. UP gave Pilot a week to voluntarily reduce shipments but has not yet issued an embargo, Konar says. Pilot outlined the situation in a filing to the board last week.

Eric Gehringer, UP’s executive vice president of operations, says the railroad continues to work with customers like Pilot to fully understand their car supply and shipment needs. “We’re still working through those details,” he says. “So we’re not pressuring them, saying you have to be at this level by this date. We’re still in the collaborative phase of ‘How can we do this together?’ ”

STB steps up criticism

STB Chairman Martin J. Oberman, who criticized CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern officials in the first day of hearings, on Wednesday scolded BNSF Railway and UP for not maintaining a cushion of employees to handle a surge in traffic.

Oberman pointed to June 2021 letters from BNSF CEO Katie Farmer and UP CEO Lance Fritz, who both offered assurances that their railroads would have enough crews to meet rising demand. Instead, both railroads have been holding a rising number of trains per day for a lack of crews and locomotives.

Railroad officials apologized and said they were working as quickly as possible to hire crews and to pull locomotives out of storage. The railroads attributed their service problems to a combination factors: Traffic that rebounded faster than expected from pandemic lows; tangles in other links in the global supply chain, including ports, trucking, and warehouses; lower than anticipated return of furloughed crew members; higher than expected attrition of train crews and conductor trainees; and the struggle to hire conductors in a tight job market.

BNSF aims to hire 1,700 conductors this year; UP says it will hire 1,400.

“As BNSF has made clear in our communication with the board and to our customers, we’re not here to make excuses,” says Matt Garland, BNSF’s vice president of transportation. “Our service is our responsibility and we simply have not met our customer expectations in recent months.”

BNSF expects service to be choppy over the next 30 days, but within 60 days should start to show signs of improvement as conductor trainees are deployed across the system, Garland told the board.

“Union Pacific understands the severity of the situation and is working hard to restore service to the levels our customers expect,” Gehringer says.

Yellow locomotives moving double-stack cars with container crains in background
A Union Pacific container train is assembled at the Global 4 Intermodal Terminal in Joliet, Ill., on Aug. 4, 2021. A UP official said Wednesday that the railroad’s terminals are fluid but main lines are congested. (Trains: David Lassen)

UP’s terminals are fluid, he says, but main lines are congested due to excess car inventory. As UP’s customers have put 30,000 more cars into the system as the railroad slowed down, UP has had to run 70 to 90 additional trains per day. And that compounded congestion that feeds on itself by requiring more crews and more locomotives.

“With the amount of congestion currently on the network, it will likely take us the better half of the year to decongest the network, assuming minimal variability on the network in addition to our customers’ crucial help in taking private cars off the network,” Gehringer says, based on the railroad’s recovery from similar events in 2014, 2017, and 2019.

Board member Robert Primus was critical of UP’s use of embargoes, which he said are far and away higher than the rest of the industry. And he said it shows UP is penalizing its customers for the railroad’s inability to provide efficient and reliable service.

Gehringer said UP only resorts to embargoes after lengthy discussions with customers and doesn’t restrict traffic if congestion at a customer facility or local serving is a result of UP service failures.

BNSF defended its controversial Hi-Viz attendance policy, which is designed to boost crew availability. Crews can still use vacation and personal days, Garland says, and more than 90% of crews have earned points for good attendance since the policy was implemented this year.

And he disputed labor union claims that the attendance policy has led to a wave of resignations. Attrition is slightly higher than normal, Garland says, but most of the 300 engineers and conductors who have left recently had not worked a shift in the past six months.

KCS to the rescue?

With UP and BNSF traffic snarled in the busy Houston terminal, Kansas City Southern has offered use of its crews to move dead trains parked on main lines. KCS, which was singled out for providing good service and was not required to attend the STB hearing, made the offer in a Friday letter to the STB.

Kansas City Southern train leaves terminal
A Kansas City Southern intermodal train intermodal train heads for the UP Brownsville Subdivision at Robstown, Texas, in November 2017. KCS is offering to help with other railroads’ congestion in the Houston area. (Bill Stephens)

The congestion has hurt the operation of KCS cross-border traffic that relies on long segments of trackage rights, mostly on UP, through Houston and across south Texas. On average, KCS has had to use two crews — instead of one — to move traffic between Beaumont and Kendleton, west of Houston.

“To help resolve the Houston congestion problems, KCS has actually offered its crews on several occasions to move BNSF and UP trains that lacked crews off the main line so that KCS trains can pass,” John Orr, executive vice president of operations, wrote to the board. “We have also moved our interchange with BNSF for some auto traffic from the Robstown/Corpus Christi area to Rosenberg, just west of Houston, so BNSF has to expend fewer crews from their over-taxed crew base.”

Orr suggested that the STB might consider granting KCS temporary trackage rights so that it and other railroads could bypass Houston congestion to reach the border at Laredo, Texas.

“Can we do something to ease the congestion in Houston, at least … as a temporary measure if not a permanent one,” Oberman asked.

UP and BNSF were unaware of the KCS filing but said they’d follow up. Gehringer was surprised about KCS’s claims, saying UP has spent $250 million in the last two years to extend tracks in its Englewood and Settegast yards in Houston, which are fed by a triple-track main. And Garland said BNSF and UP collaborate well every day to move traffic through Houston.

Oberman asked the railroads to work together. “Really, you need to pull out all the stops,” he says.

More PSR criticism

For a second day, shippers and rail labor criticized the railroads’ implementation of the low-cost Precision Scheduled Railroading operating model and blamed it for cuts in personnel, yards, locomotives, and local service.

The NIT League’s Corthell disputed railroads’ claims that their PSR implementations had been flawless, noting that local service complaints were brought to the board in 2019 – when CSX and NS both said their service was at record levels of reliability.

And while railroads have blamed their service failures on crew availability and power, Corthell says the problem did not begin during the pandemic. “The problem started before COVID and it has its roots in the financial model known as Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PSR,” Corthell says. “And yes, I did say financial model.”

Railroads have reduced local service in pursuit of lower operating ratios, Corthell says, and have continued to miss scheduled switches at an alarming rate. “Precision Scheduled Railroading has proven to be anything but precise at origin and destination,” he says.

Unions representing mechanical and signal workers told the board that railroads are cannibalizing stored locomotives to keep active units in service and claimed that shop forces, car inspectors, and signal maintainers are spread too thin.

Many have resigned due to working conditions, they said, including machinists with 10 to 20 years experience who have left Railroad Retirement benefits behind.

“The problem is not inherently with a scheduled railroad, but a ruthless cost-cutting business model,” says labor lawyer Richard Edelman.

Red locomotive leads train past passenger station
A Canadian Pacific train passes the Metra station in Lake Forest, Ill., on April 8, 2022. CP officials defended Precision Scheduled Railroading at Wednesday’s STB Hearing. (Trains: David Lassen)

Canadian Pacific, which like Canadian National and KCS was not required to attend the hearing, defended PSR. James Clements, the railway’s senior vice president of strategic planning and technology transformation, says CP has grown and run well despite disruptions over the past three years.

The railway’s improved financial performance since adopting PSR in 2012 allowed it to invest in track upgrades, longer sidings, centralized traffic control, and yards that can handle longer trains. “We have built what I would call the foundation upon which you operate the PSR model,” Clements says, noting improvements in the railway’s service and customer satisfaction.

Primus thanked CP and CN for attending. “You guys weren’t on the firing squad list to be here, and yet you came,” he says. But he was critical of Farmer and Fritz for not attending.

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